As Bess Kalb shares anecdotes about her beloved grandmother from her West Coast home, an odd thing happens outside the window of her East Coast interviewer’s home. A bright red cardinal appears on the branch of a nearby tree, a sudden splash of color against the snowy landscape. Some believe a cardinal’s arrival symbolizes a visit from a departed loved one—and readers of Kalb’s poignant, often hilarious tribute to her late grandmother, Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, will likely agree that if any spirit would have that sort of power, Bobby Bell’s would.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Kalb agrees. “I like to think she would come back as a fabulous bird in her perfect shade of red lipstick.”
Kalb, an Emmy-nominated comedy writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” explains that the inspiration for the book began at her grandmother’s funeral. “I was wondering what she would think about all of this,” Kalb recalls. “As a way to just make it through the grueling ordeal of a beloved family member’s funeral, I had a running commentary in my head from her as she was lying feet away from me. I was hearing her go, ‘Oh, God. Look at how much they’re shoveling.’”
“My grandma was opinionated because she had some really great opinions.”
Bobby Bell was such a beloved force of nature that when she died at age 90 in 2017, she had two funerals—one in New York, where she spent much of her life, and another in Massachusetts, where she is buried. “At both of those services,” Kalb says, “I delivered a eulogy in her voice. It was a way to bring her back right away and to let her speak for herself. I thought the most appropriate way to do it was to give her the last word.”
At one service, Kalb read the transcript of a voicemail from her grandmother, recalling how, when Kalb was an infant, Bobby would fly from Florida to New York each week to care for her while Kalb’s mother, a physician, worked. “It was actually two voicemails because she was interrupted halfway through by a call waiting, which she would always take,” Kalb says. At the other service, Kalb delivered “a more freewheeling description” of how her grandmother repeatedly waited beside her preschool door in an effort to calm her fearful, 4-year-old self.
After the funeral, Kalb continued to write in her grandmother’s voice. And once, while speaking by phone with her grandfather, Kalb began impersonating her grandmother, telling him what his wife would have said. “He just got quiet,” Kalb says. “I remember thinking, if I can make her feel present again for him, then maybe there is something to this.”
fter challenging herself to write Bobby’s story in Bobby’s own voice, Kalb emailed a sample to her literary agent, who responded enthusiastically. “And lo and behold,” Kalb recalls, “those 40 pages are the first 40 pages of the book.”
This lively, unique book describes Bobby’s rags-to-riches life, beginning with a penniless birth on a dining room table in a Brooklyn tenement. Bobby’s mother (Kalb’s great-grandmother) had left her family at age 12, emigrating alone from Tsarist Russia to the United States in the face of religious persecution. Bobby and her husband, Hank (who still lectures at Columbia University), worked tirelessly, earning a fortune in real estate developments and sometimes dodging Mafia bosses. These family stories unfold in nonlinear fashion, interspersed with frequent exchanges between grandmother and granddaughter: some real, many imagined.
Kalb readily admits that her book is hard to categorize, since it isn’t truly a memoir. “I was aware of how many ethical lines I was crossing throughout. I don’t want [the book] to be taken at face value as her words and her telling of her life story. It is mine, and it is through the lens of my relationship with her. This is an act of ventriloquism more than it is reportage.”
“It ended up being a really, really therapeutic way of saying goodbye while also getting to know her again.”
As her grandmother’s “humble scribe,” Kalb spent hours with her mother and grandfather after Bobby’s death, trying to fill in any gaps in the stories she heard growing up. “It ended up being a really, really therapeutic way of saying goodbye while also getting to know her again,” Kalb says. “In many ways I feel like I understand my grandmother better than I did when she was alive. Getting inside her head and walking in her beautiful Ferragamo shoes . . . was an important way of connecting with her that I actually didn’t get to do in her life.” Kalb calls the final product a “Russian doll of a memoir, in that it’s a story within a story within a story . . . an intergenerational container for many lives.”
In the epilogue, during a brief, imagined conversation between Kalb and her grandmother, Bobby cautions, “I’m in a box in the ground. You’re putting words in my mouth. In a dead woman’s mouth.” In response, Kalb asks, “Are you angry?”
When questioned about whether she thinks her grandmother would approve, Kalb quips, “I think she’d go, ‘Oh, God. I hope somebody reads it other than your mother.’”
Ironically, Kalb’s mother—whose often fraught relationship with Bobby forms a centerpiece of the narrative—has yet to read the book, calling it “too painful.” Kalb says that after reading several pages of the manuscript, she paid her daughter’s writing perhaps the greatest compliment possible, saying, “That’s Grandma.”
This formidable grandmother was hardly shy about offering opinions, such as, “Never mind what you like—would it kill you to wear some color every once in a while? . . . Why don’t you take down my credit card number and go to Bloomingdale’s and buy yourself some nice things that aren’t morose.”
Despite such comical exchanges, Kalb asserts that her grandmother defies the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish grandmother, which Kalb says “misses the dimensionality of her character and her point of view. My grandma was opinionated because she had some really great opinions.” Kalb says her grandma’s constant guidance helped shape her as both a writer and a person. Not surprisingly, Kalb is no shrinking violet herself—in fact, President Trump blocked her on Twitter after she made a series of jokes about him.
Kalb calls her comedy writing for Jimmy Kimmel “the greatest job of my life,” adding, “I don’t think I would have been able to write this book if I didn’t have the training that I had as a daily TV writer.” Not only did she write the book while working full time, she was also pregnant with her infant son, to whom the book is dedicated—an honor he shares, of course, with Bobby.
Kalb finished writing Nobody Will Tell You This but Me with “heaving sobs,” finding it painful to once again have to say goodbye. Now, however, Kalb loves seeing her grandmother come alive for readers, saying, “It adds a whole new dimension to the reconjuring of a woman I loved.”
Not surprisingly, Kalb continues to hear her grandmother’s voice, often in dreams that she describes as “this sort of weird Grandma A.I. in my brain.” If, for example, she stresses about her baby not sleeping through the night, she hears Bobby advising, “You shut the door. You have a glass of wine. Everyone will live.” Kalb laughs, admitting she has no idea what her grandmother might actually have said on that subject.
“I think that’s what I miss most now,” Kalb continues. “I really have to sort of recobble together her wisdom from the toolkit she gave me.”
No doubt Bobby Bell would beam proudly as her granddaughter reiterates her grief. Says Kalb, “As much as during my adolescence and teenage years, I felt like maybe I was being pushed—God, what I wouldn’t give for another push right now.”
Author photo © Lucas Foglia.